Breaking Ships – Breaking Communities?

Ellie Tighe and John Duncan

In 2009, the UN: International Maritime Organisation, implemented the Hong Kong convention, a multilateral agreement to combat the detrimental impact of ship recycling on humans and the environment (www.imo.org). Observing the industrial activities down by the banks of the muddy Buriganga River in central Dhaka however, exposes this agreement as abstract and irrelevant.

In South Asia each year 800 ocean going ships are dismantled by scores of unskilled, child and migrant laborers  (http://www.shipbreakingplatform.org).  NGOs estimate that each week, one labourer dies while many others are afflicted by serious injuries, and long-term health and environmental defects (Greenpeace-FIDH, 2005).


Figure 1 The South Dhaka ship breaking yards.

The industry in Bangladesh is now worth $1 billion, providing jobs to an estimated 30,000 people, (200,000 indirectly) (FIDH, 2008). Steel generated from dismembered ships feeds the construction industry satisfying 30-80% of Bangladesh’s steel demand, important for an economy with few raw materials of its own (Greenpeace-FIDH, 2005; FIDH, 2008; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2561965.stm).  The government in addition receives over $111 million through yard taxes and import duties.

The ship breaking yards of South Dhaka have perilous working conditions. Flimsy wooden walkways, weakened by a humid monsoon climate offer the only protection to workers from steep drops. Ship parts and machinery are worked upon in informal workshops with workers using no safety equipment or footwear, melting down metal and moulding propellers at the same time. The shipyard has a non-existent safety infrastructure with the ships inherently unstable, held up with minimal support. Open flames are common all over the shipyard, which can trigger explosions, where workers frequently die. The workers are unregistered, with no appointment letter and if they die or are injured they go missing with no record (FIDH, 2008). Wages are below the $2 a day poverty line and yard owners do not allow workers to form trade unions, breaching both international and domestic law.

Figure 2 Informal workshop where labourers mould new propellers operating heavy metal casts by hand and exposed to open flames and molten metal with no protective equipment.

Aside from catastrophic accidents workers are subjected to long-term health problems and respiratory diseases. Children under the age of 15, account for 20 per cent of the work force, destroying their health before they reach the age of maturity (FIDH, 2008; http://www.shipbreakingplatform.org). Scores of men hammer chippings of paint and rust exposing themselves to asbestos, with no protective masks.

Figure 3 A young child operating machinery preparing new ship propellers with no safety equipment or supervision.

Figure 4 Scores of men hammer metal chippings off the hulls of ships with no masks to protect their lungs from exposure to fine metal fragments, asbestos or toxic gases.

Furthermore, the boundaries between workplace and living space are non-existent with worker’s informal housing merging with the industrial space of the shipyard. Therefore it is not only the workers who are impacted, but the wider community, with heavy metal and toxins from ships polluting the environment and smoke and fumes blowing into houses. The community has no clean water and women and children wash in the same waters as polluting ships.

Figure 5 Open flames and smoke plumes from informal industry are embedded within the informal housing of ship breaking yard ensuring the whole communities health is at risk.

The shipyard community is also home to hidden workshops harboring child labour in dangerous and cramped working conditions. Dark rooms were home to heavy textiles machinery manned by children producing shoe laces and threading materials for the nations garment industry.

Figure 6 Child labour mans an informal shoe lace factory within the informal housing of the ship breaking yard hidden from any regulatory bodies.

Yet, in the worlds second most densely populated country (excluding city and island states) where half of the 150 million population live below the poverty line, opportunities in ship breaking yards despite the risk associated are in reality sort after employments, contributing a vital source of income despite their irregularity and dire working conditions.

And despite all the listed atrocities, when you visit these areas and see them by eye, what is overwhelming is the level of human resilience. The slum conditions of the South Dhaka shipyard are almost hidden beneath the workers humanity, dignity and sense of humor, offering to the foreign visitor hospitality, pride and a familiar sense of community. While to us these landscapes appear destitute and hopeless, to others these spaces are homes and communities, making for a far more complex situation, drawing in issues of structural power which renders these industries operable in South Asia in the first place.

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One comment

  1. […] postgraduate blog. 63 blogs have been posted ranging from cattle related poetry to issues of ship breaking in Bangladesh. Some of our contributors have even enlightened readers with great tips on how to manage the life […]

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